Richard Mills on The Capulets and the Montagues

7 Aug 2018

Before the finale of Victorian Opera’s Bellini concert series, Artistic Director Richard Mills reflects on the genius of Bellini and the challenges he faced bringing this bel canto masterpiece to life.

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Photo: Jeff Busby

The Capulets and the Montagues (I Capuleti e i Montecchi) was really the first major success for Bellini. It had an extremely stressful birth, being written in just six weeks because of contractual arrangements surrounding the premiere at Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1830. Bellini was just 29 years old when he began work on this project with librettist Felice Romani who also wrote the text for Norma, Il Pirata, Zaira, La Sonnambula and Beatrice di Tenda. Unfortunately, a quarrel and a misunderstanding prevented Romani from providing the text for Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani.

Romani was a man of culture and wide academic learning, and was appointed librettist for La Scala. He was learned in Celtic and French literature but despite many proffered opportunities, he refused to work in France, preferring the Italian milieu. He wrote over 100 libretti.

His previous collaboration with Bellini, Zaira, was not successful and damaged Bellini’s standing in the fiercely competitive Italian opera industry of his day. This industry closely resembled today’s Hollywood film industry, with powerful impresarios, a star system and lots of gossip and intrigue. A failure was a very public event and was always the subject of much commentary and discussion, in print as well as verbally.

Bellini jumped at this commission by the Fenice, for which he was the second choice (rare, in those days, for composers who had had a ‘dud’). The first choice was Giovanni Pacini, now more noted for some unremarkable keyboard music rather than operas, despite writing 74 of them. Poor Bellini also contracted a heavy cold during the dark northern Italian winter days, and struggled to finish the opera, appropriating sections from Zaira to help the project along and enable it to be delivered on time.

Romani based his text on Italian sources rather than Shakespeare, most directly on a play by Luigi Scevola written in 1818, which in turn was based on Italian Renaissance sources by Matteo Bandello and Luigi Da Porto from the mid-1500s. The major elements of the story are present: the warring families, the potion, the mix up, and the deaths in the tomb, though in the opera it is not actually clear how Juliet meets her end, she just dies.

But there were enough dramatic and lyrical elements in the libretto to inspire Bellini to compose some extraordinary music. The dynamic lyricism of the very long melodic sections is as distinctive now as it was then, and the virtuosity of the vocal lines still demands the finest bel canto singers to do them justice. The melodies display an uncannily perfect fusion of poetic and musical impulse, absolutely perfected in later operas, but, nevertheless, of sufficient merit to render this work its place in the canon of the famous four – the others being Norma, La Sonnambula and I Puritani –which have already been performed by Victorian Opera. So, this venture concludes our celebration of the genius of Bellini, at least for the time being.

It has been a great pleasure to collaborate with one of the singers who deserves the title of prima donna assoluta – Jessica Pratt, now a veteran of both La Scala and the Met, as well as being able to bring other notable singers, such as Paolo Pecchioli, to Australia, and also to inculcate the traditions of fine lyric singing in our company artists. The artistic growth of tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas is substantially a result of such a collaboration. This is a legacy of which Victorian Opera is very proud, and which has gained international recognition, particularly through the streaming of La Sonnambula on Opera Vision last year. In this context, it is also a delight and a privilege to welcome Caitlin Hulcup to Victorian Opera. Caitlin has a distinguished international career (including London’s Royal Opera House and Munich’s Bayerisches Staatsoper) and is perfect for the ‘pants role’ of Romeo.

In conclusion, a little anecdote.

Bellini’s teacher, Zingerelli, is documented as having told him: ‘If your compositions “sing” your music will most certainly please… Therefore, if you train your heart to give you melody, and then you set it forth as simply as possible, your success will be assured. You will become a composer. Otherwise you will end up a good organist in some village.’

This is good advice for any composer at any time. It certainly was not lost on Bellini who, as ‘the Swan of Catania’, lives in our affections now and, I suspect, for as long as we care about the genius of Italian opera.

Victorian Opera performed The Capulets and The Montagues as part of Season 2018.